INTERVIEW + LINKS TO WORK
Sueyeun Juliette Lee is the author of two books of poetry: That Gorgeous Feeling (2008) and Underground National (2011) and five chapbooks: A Primary Mother; Mental Commitment Robot; No, Comet, That Serpent in the Sky Means Noise; Perfect Villagers; Trespass Slightly In; and much more. Her website is Silent Broadcast where you can find links to purchase her books/chapbooks and to more work.
About SJL from her site: I’m a poet and graduate candidate at Temple University, where I research avant-garde Asian American poetry and social space. For a living, I teach creative writing and literature courses at Richard Stockton College, and language craft for the College of Art Media and Design at the University of the Arts.
I’m also a 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts.
My third full-length collection, SOLAR MAXIMUM, is forthcoming from Futurepoem Books in 2014.
In 2006, I founded COROLLARY PRESS, a chapbook series dedicated to innovative muti-ethnic writing. Through Corollary, I’ve released twelve titles by authors such as Craig Santos Perez, Jai Arun Ravine, Bhanu Kapil, and Christopher Stackhouse. All chapbooks are hand-stitched and run in small editions of 150. They are collected by the Poet’s House in New York, the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona, and at SUNY Buffalo. Corollary also releases occasional “special projects,” such as Douglas Kearney’s collection Quantum Spit, which are language-interested but not strictly “poetry.”
I also review contemporary poetry for The Constant Critic, a project of Fence Books and curate poetry for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s digital magazine, The Margins.
Currently, my interests include light, displacement, imaginations of the future, devastation, and movement. I’m developing a new dance poetics that poaches ancient east Asian dance forms to help bring poetry into my body.
You can contact me at s [dot] juliette [dot] lee [at] gmail [dot] com.
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TSE: I’m struck by what you wrote in the beginning (would we call that an epigraph?) of your 2010 collection Underground National: “For all who’ve suffered the multi-generational consequences of nation building. May the shapes of the future arise from a renewed imagination.” It is very much in line with my vision for TSE, for which the masthead image is a photograph of Koreans at a train station about which I quote “American financier James R. Morse actually obtained the construction rights for Korea’s first railroad, which was dubbed the Gyeongin Line. The plan was to connect Jemulpo in Incheon with Noryangjin in Seoul. Morse held a groundbreaking ceremony in 1897 in Incheon. But his financial situation rapidly deteriorated, and he conceded the rights to a Japanese firm two years later.”
I realize this is a very broad question, but would you talk [write…] about how you came to this book as a project and perhaps what questions it asked/answered/stirred for you in your various connections, inheritances, and commitments both aesthetic and otherwise?
SJL: Underground National actually began as a concept for an installation. To describe this installation, I must first go on a small diversion–kites. I really enjoy flying them. I flew my first kite in college. I bought a small delta kite at the school bookstore as a way of procrastinating from some work I didn’t want to do. I was astonished by the experience! Have you ever flown a kite? It’s like holding a darting sky-fish in your hand. The line tugs and turns in your fingers. You must bear down with your arms, through your shoulders and into your gut, to hold fast. You can feel how alive, powerful, embodied, and simultaneously distant and strange this element of air really is.
As I got older and started really grappling with my mixed-up feelings about my family, the way I am read as a raced subject, the nameless sensations that would wash over me when I thought about Korea and my family’s displacement, all the people and objects and practices I would never know–the feeling of flying the kite returned to me. KOREA is like this kite in the sky to me. It’s actual, but distant. A bit mythically imagined for me, but with its own being that I can sense through such a slender string. And yet it pulls and and pulls. And that pull and tug further reminds me of how divorced I am from this other element, this force of air. I’m terribly terrestrial. Can one know the wind through a kite? Can one know a kite through the wind? Can one know through a string? An outstretched hand?
So, I wanted to make an installation of various kites, constructed out of all sorts of bric-a-brac that fill my imagination of KOREA. I may still do this one day. I spoke with Gayle Isa, the director of the Asian Arts Initiative here in Philadelphia, about it, and she was very excited and offered me gallery space for the project. I put out a call many years back to various lists reaching out to Korean Americans to send me artifacts or scans of artifacts to include. Sadly, I didn’t get many responses.
I am not a visual artist, I am a poet. So, this whole time I was writing and thinking about this feeling of kites and memory and longing and KOREA. And then through some research I found this very strong historic association between kites and boundaries–General Yi apparently used specially designed kites to relay troop movements when the Japanese tried to invade some time ago (which attempt, I forget. Forgive me). (Odd note–my family line, Yi, comes through one of his brothers, allegedly.) I obsessed over these kites. They are beautiful. I wrote several poems devoted specifically to those kites. They didn’t make it into the book, but they loom in other ways.
When I realized that the installation wasn’t going to happen (I was also a full-time graduate student and taking my qualifying exams), I turned towards the writing as its own project. I wrote Bill Marsh over at Factory School about the project, to see if he’d be interested in what I was working on. He was reading work for the next series at the time, and I LOVE FACTORY SCHOOL. He agreed to publish whatever the project turned into. We bandied about some versions until the final form came together.
KOREA was the seed, KITES were my guiding motif, but I was VERY interested in getting at psychological structures and how nation frames impacted them. I personally feel that much of the mixed-up things about me and my family are directly related to these terrifically powerful imaginative structures that bear down on us–the “nation” being one of them. The nation as a psychological structure feels to me something that I can explore in language in a way that makes a contribution, in a way that can point to without reifying or rigidifying it (I hope).
Given my location as a US citizen, illiterate diasporic Korean, doctoral candidate in Literature, and dweller of the digital age, my attention turned to the circulation of discourses as a means for examining these things. I’m of the opinion that various highly motivated rhetorics have and continue to mediate any understanding of KOREA that I may ever seek to have. It’s the brute fact of my being raised in the Cold War USA, frankly. So, I wanted to make the textures and circulations of these discourses apparent. Hence the dub-aesthetic of the first long poem, “Korea, What Is.” There’s a lot of sampling, juxtaposing, contrasting by placement, isolation of texts, etc. that happen in that piece. Some of this is done crudely–purposefully so–like the screen captures. I wanted to leave evidence of how this material–posing as “knowledge” or “information”–came to me. There’s a sharp critique in those placements, in my editing of that piece together.
TSE: I love what you say about kites. It actually reminds me a little bit of having children (or being in relation to any “body” outside of one’s self, including a land body…). Connected, but there’s a wildness that is about a life force beyond one’s control. A friend recently said to me that all weather is caused by water, which is “distant and strange” as well as familiar, in that we are made of mostly water, and it seems to be a good descriptor of the invisible forces of wind as well.
Your concept for your installation interests me, too, it reminds me of a variety of works by Korean and Korean diasporic visual artists. There’s this aesthetic that I can only begin to describe as somewhat minimalist but in a rough, organic, earthy way–and that these pieces are sort of what I would call “memorants”. Anyway, that’s too bad that you didn’t get many responses or submissions, but that in itself is telling. There’s so much that is ghostly about the Korean diaspora, and there (your installation-to-be) was just one more thing that existed as a kind of outline or negative…
Yes, I can completely relate to nation, Cold War, etc. as subjects for poetic investigation. I didn’t know that about General Yi and his use of kites…it reminds me a little of propaganda (writing on paper) being dropped from aircraft onto certain target territories…although perhaps Yi’s kites were cloth and not paper, but these structures of communication…inanimate bird-like things…life-like but not alive…(like poetry?)…”one of a multitude / but cutout as well”…
So can I ask what you are working on next poetry-wise and how you see what you’re doing now (whatever that is) as growing from/being different from/in a new direction from Underground National? Is there anything going on in contemporary poetry that is exciting / inspiring you these days?
SJL: Oh geez, I always have ten plates I’m spinning. Regarding my own work–the last several years I’ve been developing a speculative poetics, which seems to now be part of a bigger trajectory that’s been taking off in the general poetry cultural consciousness these days. Bryan Thao Worra is editing a digital collection of Asian American speculative poetry that’s for the spring, and I’m so excited to see it! I’m very interested in imaginations of the future, of collapse, of how the body and the psyche might come to be in such future/other spaces. In my pieces, I’m trying to detail the encounter with impossible differences, tracking how that affects the psyche. In that regard, it’s really just an extension of the things I’ve always been interested in, but now projected and abstracted into speculative imaginative spaces. I’m influenced by the work of Wilson Harris and Stanislaw Lem. Those two men were able to describe psychological collapse in ways that have shaken my spirit. I have an essay forthcoming from the contemporary poetics journal Evening Will Come that explains this more fully, and I’ll hopefully be presenting some creative/critical work on Harris and Lem in a collaborative project with poet Hillary Gravendyk in the Bay Area this spring.
I’ve also been developing a somatic dance practice to help me explore generating language out of my body. This past year has been incredibly difficult for me and my family. My halmoni passed away almost a year ago, and she meant so much to us. It was incredibly traumatic to watch her take her last breath, to see her heartbeat slow to a stop, to feel her body grow cold. I cry just remembering these things. She was 94, she’d seen so much. For me, she represented all the things that “Korea” is to me–beloved yet impossible to fully understand or see rightly from my situated position. I’m not a very capable Korean language speaker, so my interactions with my halmoni were always infantilized. THAT needs to be its own poetics!!! I’m sure I’m not alone as a 2.0 Korean-American writer having to contend with that…
Out of that experience of losing her, other big changes have shaken me up, like the dissolution of my marriage. My husband is an incredible person, but we’re not able to make a partnership work between us. He’s a Korean immigrant who came here when he was 14, and there’s so much about his displacement, his relocation, his having to cobble together a new way of being here in the US, that affected us, not to mention my own family history. I feel a strong han inside my spirit these days. It’s ancient. It’s not just tied to my grandmother’s death or my ending marriage. It’s centuries old. It’s my heritage and makes me rich, but it’s also hurting me. So, I dance to make sense of it, to translate it, to transform myself. I’m working with a friend to create a musical score so I can make dance poems, that I can share these things and get them out of my body, into the air.
This dance practice doesn’t feel like a creative practice so much as a spiritual one. I’m becoming a new creature through it. I hope to touch wisdom, to see the world rightly, to heal.
As for contemporary poetry these days–there’s SO MUCH I’m excited about!!! I really love conceptual poetry, even though that’s frequently considered a “dirty” or contentious term by some poets. But I love it! It pushes me back into the world in a whole other way. I love the new work Divya Victor has been putting out, I love the precocity and angsty-ness of Trisha Low’s writing, I freakin’ love JANICE LEE!!!!!, I love Jai Arun Ravine’s video and performance work, Tan Lin is always fascinating and someone to keep your eyes on. And those are just the AsAm writers. Other’s I am incredibly excited about: Carlos Soto Roman, Chana Porter (a playwright), CA Conrad… I just heard Rob Halpern read from his latest collection, Music for Porn (Nightboat), and it was so beautiful and disturbing. He genuinely touched on something dark and true about the American psyche and war. Christ.
AsAm poetry is blossoming so fully right now, and there’s so much that just floors me all the time. Younger poets and poets that are just starting to publish that are on my radar screen are all writing such incredibly gorgeous work!! For sheer lyric intensity and beauty, check out Jane Wong and Ocean Vuong. Cristiana Baik is a poet to keep your eyes on. Soham Patel! Wow. What a great ear on that one.
I’m also interested in more work in translation. I love US/North American poetry, but I also feel like its interests are too insular, too literarily self-reflexive even though there’s all this ostensible interest in transnational flows/capital/diasporic movement. Perhaps I am projecting my own limitations on US poetry, generally… but that’s how I feel, at any rate. Kim Hyesoon has been getting a lot attention, and she’s an important poet to read. I really like how Zephyr Press has a strong transnational poetry line, and I’ve been reading more fiction in translation–I’m a HUGE FAN of the Open Letter series from the University of Rochester. Holy crap!! That is such an impressive series! Every title I’ve read from them BLOWS MY MIND. Jakov Lind is utterly terrifying. And Can Xue?!?! F!!! Also, my friend Jen Hofer just won the 2012 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for Negro Marfil / Ivory Black (Les Figues) and all of her translation work is INCREDIBLE, not to mention her own writing.
TSE: Thank you very much, S. Juliette Lee.
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“The Quiet Sun” published in OmniVerse
“departing the quiet place” + “d7” + “Angel by angel” published in Word for Word